Sadie Barnette, Untitled (Pointing in pink), 2017 (detail); © Sadie Barnette
Oakland-based artist Sadie Barnette brings together family photographs, images of otherworldly everyday objects, and text-based drawings to reflect on Black legacies and collective possibilities across space and time. Her recent work connects found images, bright glittery surfaces, text, and graphite drawings to uncover new dimensions of her father Rodney Barnette’s history as an activist, who founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and opened San Francisco’s first Black-owned gay bar in 1990. Barnette recently spoke with us about her role as family historian, her new Bay Area Walls commission, and how the color pink can be used to reclaim history.
See Barnette’s commission on Floor 5 from October 15, 2022–June 2023
SFMOMA: How did you approach your Bay Area Walls commission, and how does it relate to your larger body of work?
Sadie Barnette: Thinking about the Bay Area Walls commission, and the context of this series, I wanted my piece to operate at the scale of a mural or billboard while still feeling like it relates to my more intimate object-based practice. Because the hallway in the City Gallery where my work appears is both big and narrow, I wanted people to have a reason to get up close to the wall, to reward a slower and closer viewing with handmade pencil drawings and glittering rhinestone details. The drawings are text compositions that each meditate on colloquial ways of measuring space and time … “Right Here,” “Right Now,” “Everything” and “Forever.”
SFMOMA: Your family history is an important thread in your work. What led to you assuming the role of “family historian”?
SB: I’ve always been one to witness, to hang back and observe, and therefore appreciate the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and style of my family. Our differences all come together under one roof or at one barbecue and those are some of the most beautiful moments. I’m always learning from seeing them see my work. They know this project is theirs, and ours.
SFMOMA: Your commission starts with a pink tinted window that reads “SPACE/TIME.” What is its significance?
SB: The text acknowledges the conversations I’m having across space and time. I’m using my family history to retell or reanimate stories, bringing them into the present. I’m also speaking to a future that hasn’t happened yet, and actively holding space for a future that needs to be imagined and fought for. My work engages with social structures, but also with what’s beyond — the mind-blowing and existential Everythingness.
SFMOMA: Why the color pink?
SB: In my work since 2016 that draws on the FBI file amassed on my father when he was a Black Panther, I realized how pink and glitter could be used like a kryptonite, or weapon, against J. Edgar Hoover and this whole surveillance system. Pink seemed even more defiant than scribbling on documents or ripping them up.
Pink is often thought of as this frivolous, unserious color. But it’s actually quite powerful and takes up a lot of space. Pink turns up the volume on this youthful, high-femme language and aesthetic that people use to tell you about themselves and shine in the world.
“Pink is often thought of as this frivolous, unserious color. But it’s actually quite powerful and takes up a lot of space.”
SFMOMA: Tell us about some of the key elements in the mural, and how a picture of your father, Rodney Barnette, anchors the installation.
SB: The central photograph in the mural is what I call an “in-camera collage” of my father standing in an abstract tunnel pointing to a bright pink void. I made the image by rolling up a piece of paper, printed with a black and white outer space motif, and pointing the roll at a neon pink sheet of paper, then placing my camera in the paper tube and snapping the shutter. The resulting photo is architectural and physical. Then I cut and pasted a contemporary image of my dad on top. He’s gesturing towards this pink, glowing, other dimension that anchors the whole wall.
Pink also appears in the mural’s spray paint drips and images of a glitter-covered VHS player, receiver, and headphones. The musical equipment references devices for sharing information and culture and holds space for potential imagined technologies, or even magic. Items like these often appear in my work as physical objects, but I liked in this context how everything could be flattened and unified by nature of being printed on the same plane of vinyl. Family photos of birthdays and weddings, cell phone snaps of pizza and cars, studio materials — all are existing together, in contradiction or in harmony. Collectively they get just a bit closer to an experience or reality that I’m trying to mark as we hurdle through space.
SFMOMA: Your project appears outside the Floor 5 Fisher Collection galleries, which have been newly installed with artworks that consider the continual resonance of the 1960s. How does your commission connect?
SB: The show is full of people who have had a huge influence on my work, particularly Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Kerry James Marshall. I can’t imagine a world without their work, which connects to this idea of space and time, and how so many artists and offerings have contributed to me having the vocabulary and space to create.
My work touches on events from the sixties. One photograph is my father in his army uniform, drafted and soon to be sent to Vietnam. After every war, Black and Brown veterans come home and realize that though they’ve risked their lives and lost loved ones, there’s no less racism and no more dignity for them in this country. That’s why my father joined the Black Panthers — connecting these wars of imperialism to wars at home for basic human rights and dignities.
“After every war, Black and Brown veterans come home and realize that though they’ve risked their lives and lost loved ones, there’s no less racism and no more dignity for them in this country. “
SFMOMA: You’ve talked in interviews about growing up in Oakland, a place of “style and swagger.” How has Oakland influenced your development as an artist and your artistic vision?
SB: I’m very proud to be from Oakland. This place is a huge small city, if you know what I mean, and has had a disproportionate amount of influence on music, dances, slang, and style. From Oakland’s political history, to the once thriving West Oakland jazz-blues corridor, there’s something about this town that produces so much art and resistance. People have very strong consciousness and critique, but also a great deal of fun and playfulness and flex.
Oakland’s car culture influenced a lot of my appreciation for sparkle and shine, and over-the-top glitter. I grew up listening to E-40 and the extravagant creativity and experimentation of his lyrics. Probably from rappers in general I’ve learned that it’s not just about what you say but how you say it.
SPACE/TIME was commissioned and executed by Sadie Barnette as a part of Bay Area Walls, a series of commissions initiated in 2020.
Major support for Bay Area Walls is provided by the Roberta and Steve Denning Commissioning Endowed Fund and Gap Inc.
Generous support is provided by the Patricia W. Fitzpatrick Commissioning Endowed Fund, Diana Nelson and John Atwater Commissioning Fund, and the Denise Littlefield Sobel Commissioning Endowed Fund.